Repeated fire shifts carbon and nitrogen cycling by changing plant inputs and soil decomposition across ecosystems

TitleRepeated fire shifts carbon and nitrogen cycling by changing plant inputs and soil decomposition across ecosystems
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsPellegrini, AFA, Hobbie, SE, Reich, PB, Jumpponen, A, Brookshire, ENJack, Caprio, AC, Coetsee, C, Jackson, RB
JournalEcological Monographs
Accession NumberKNZ002015

Fires shape the biogeochemistry and functioning of many ecosystems, and fire frequencies are changing across much of the globe. Frequent fires can change soil carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) storage by altering the quantity and chemistry of plant inputs through changes in plant biomass and composition as well as altering decomposition of soil organic matter. How decomposition rates change with shifting inputs remains uncertain because most studies focus on the effects of single fires, where transient changes may not reflect responses to decadal changes in burning frequencies. Here, we sampled seven sites exposed to different fire frequencies. In four of the sites, we intensively sampled both soils and plant communities across four ecosystems in North America and Africa spanning tropical savanna, temperate coniferous savanna, temperate broadleaf savanna, and temperate coniferous forest ecosystems. Each site contained multiple plots burned frequently for 33‐61 years and nearby plots that had remained unburned over the same period replicated at the landscape scale. Across all sites, repeatedly burned plots had 25‐185% lower bulk soil C and N concentrations but also 2‐10‐fold lower potential decomposition of organic matter compared to unburned sites. Soil C and N concentrations and extracellular enzyme activities declined with frequent fire because fire reduced both plant biomass inputs into soils and dampened the localized enrichment effect of tree canopies. Examination of soil extracellular enzyme activities revealed that fire decreased the potential turnover of organic matter in the forms of cellulose, starch, and chitin (p<0.0001) but not polyphenol and lignin (p=0.09), suggesting a shift in soil C and N cycling. Inclusion of δ13C data from three additional savanna sites (19‐60 years of altered fire frequencies) showed that soil C losses were largest in sites where estimated tree inputs into soils declined the most (r2=0.91, p<0.01). In conclusion, repeated burning reduced C and N storage, consistent with previous studies, but fire also reduced potential decomposition, likely contributing to slower C and N cycling. Trees were important in shaping soil carbon responses across sites, but the magnitude of tree effects differed and depended on how tree biomass inputs into soil responded to fire.